Cigarette Burned

Tales from the Crypt Archives Volume 2: written by Al Feldstein; illustrated by Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, and others (1951-52; reprinted 2010): Another collection of horror stories ranging from good to great, from the days before the Comics Code Authority lobotomized American comic books.

It amazes me how fresh and enjoyable most of the stories in this volume remain. EC had the finest comic-book artists in America for much of its too-short existence. The stories, written for the most part by editor Al Feldstein, occasionally get a bit rote (the vengeance of the dead was always an EC horror staple, along with some truly atrocious puns), but many are clever short stories in their own right.

But the art, of course, is the thing. Wally Wood is a bit out of his depth here — he was always best on science fiction and non-supernatural thrillers, and the two covers he assays are weirdly non-horrific. But when you’ve got ‘Ghastly’ Graham Ingels, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, and Joe Orlando on the beat, everything’s going to be fine. Davis, also a long-time Mad artist, is droll and blackly comic. Orlando and Kamen are fine, moody artists.

And Ingels remains one of the greatest horror artists to ever draw comic books. Many of his monsters are disturbingly malformed. He’s the granddaddy of so many modern horror artists, from Bernie Wrightson through Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. His grotesques anticipate both the distorted spaghetti monsters of films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and the human monsters of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Highly recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer: Death & Cigarettes: written by Peter Milligan; illustrated by Simon Bisley, Guiseppe Camuncoli, and Stefano Landini (2012-2013; Collected 2013): 300 issues of Vertigo’s John Constantine Hellblazer come to an end in this volume, so that Constantine can continue his adventures, in somewhat altered and youthfulized form, over in a title set in DC’s mainstream superhero universe.

Created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch in Swamp Thing in the early 1980’s as a sort of punk-attitude occult investigator from rust-belt Northern England, Constantine has had a long, varied, and distinguished career both in other people’s comics and in his 25 years of his own title. He’s even survived a completely screwy Keanu Reeves movie. And he’s getting his own TV series this fall.

For me, the heights of John Constantine Hellblazer were reached early, with Jamie Delano writing the first 40 issues or so. Ably complemented by artists that included John Ridgway (understated and sinister), Sean Phillips and, in Delano’s then-finale on the series, cover-artist Dave McKean doing an entire issue, Delano created a dense, kitchen-sink milieu of horror for Constantine.

Most of the humour in the title came from Constantine’s sarcastic reaction to the horrors he faced. We were always meant to view Constantine through the lens of his own self-evaluation as a cursed punk, but we were also forced to conclude that he was indeed a very, very dark knight standing between humanity and the inimical forces of heaven and hell alike.

So we fast-forward here, to the end. I was gratified to discover that the Internet had as many problems figuring out just what the Hell the last three pages of the last issue mean. The whole thing ends on a note of ambiguity that may be entirely intended or may be sloppy story-telling. I have no idea.

Writer Peter Milligan gives us a 60-ish Constantine gifted with a super-hot 40-years-younger wife, a suddenly retconned-into-existence nephew who looks exactly like him, and a not-particularly imposing group of supernatural menaces to usher him out of his title. The art’s generally so dark as to verge on inexplicable. Also, as some Internet wag noted, the main artists here seem to have forgotten that Constantine was visually modelled on Sting circa 1983, and not on Gary Busey circa 2013. The years have not been kind.

Stuff happens. There are a lot of sex scenes. Constantine’s niece, once a capable presence when written by others, shows up as a traumatized shell of her former appearances. What’s technically a demonic rape is played strictly for laughs. Did Constantine and his universe deserve better than this? Yeah. But we’ll always have Newcastle. Spend your money on the John Constantine Hellblazer collections written by Delano, Garth Ennis, Andy Diggle, or Mike Carey instead. Not recommended.

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